#What travel meansIf our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest—in all its ardour and paradoxes—than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems—that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical.Why be seduced by something as small as a front door in another country? Why fall in love with a place because it has trams and its people seldom have curtains in their homes? However absurd the intense reactions provoked by such small (and mute) foreign elements may seem, the pattern is at least familiar from our personal lives. There, too, we may find ourselves anchoring emotions of love on the way a person butters his or her bread, or recoiling at his or her taste in shoes. To condemn ourselves for these minute concerns is to ignore how rich in meaning details may be.What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.But there may be a more profound pleasure as well: we may value foreign elements not only because they are new but because they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland can provide.Towards the end of his life, his South American adventures long behind him, Humboldt complained, with a mixture of self-pity and pride, ‘People often say that I'm curious about too many things at once: botany, astronomy, comparative anatomy. But can you really forbid a man from harbouring a desire to know and embrace everything that surrounds him?’Among all the places that we go to but don't look at properly or that leave us indifferent, a few occasionally stand out with an impact that overwhelms us and forces us to take heed. They possess a quality that might clumsily be called beauty. This may not involve prettiness nor any of the obvious features that guidebooks associate with beauty spots; having recourse to the word might be just another way of saying that we like a place.What, then, is a travelling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or a hairdresser's shop unusually fascinating. We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs. Home, by contrast, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighbourhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place where we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.
#Sublime nature speaksNatural scenes have the power to suggest certain values to us—oaks dignity, pines resolution, lakes calm—and therefore may, in unobtrusive ways, act as inspirations to virtue.Looking back on Wordsworth's early poems, Coleridge would assert that their genius had been to ‘give the charm of novelty to things of every day and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.' Nature's ‘loveliness' might in turn, according to Wordsworth, encourage us to locate the good in ourselves. Two people standing on the edge of a rock overlooking a stream and a grand wooded valley might thus transform their relationship not just with nature but also, and just as significantly, with each other.Wordsworth urged us to travel through landscapes in order to feel emotions that may benefit our souls. I set out for the desert so as to be made to feel small.There are few emotions about places for which adequate single words exist; we are forced instead to make awkward piles of words to convey what we feel as we watch the light fade on an early-autumn evening, or when we encounter a pool of perfectly still water in a clearing. But at the beginning of the eighteenth century, a word came to prominence by means of which it became possible to indicate a specific response towards precipices and glaciers, night skies and boulder-strewn deserts. In their presence one was likely to experience, and could count on being understood if one reported that one had felt, a sense of the sublime.Joseph Addison, in his ‘Essay on the Pleasures of the Imagination', wrote of the ‘delightful stillness and amazement' he felt before ‘the prospects of an open champian country, a vast uncultivated desert, huge heaps of mountains, high rocks and precipices and a wide expanse of waters'. Hildebrand Jacob, in an essay entitled ‘How the Mind Is Raised by the Sublime', offered a list of the places and things that were most likely to invoke this prized feeling: oceans, either in calm or storm, the setting sun, precipices, caverns and Swiss mountains.A landscape could arouse the sublime only when it suggested power—a power greater than that of humans, and threatening to them. Sublime places embodied a defiance to man's will.One answer is that not everything that is more powerful than us must always be hateful to us. What defies our will can provoke anger and resentment, but it may also arouse awe and respect. It depends on whether the obstacle appears noble in its defiance or squalid and insolent. We begrudge the defiance of the cocky doorman even as we honour that of the mist-shrouded mountain. We are humiliated by what is powerful and mean but awed by what is powerful and noble. To return to and extend Burke's animal analogy, a bull may arouse a feeling of the sublime, whereas a piranha cannot. It seems a matter of motives: we interpret the piranha's power as being vicious and predatory, and the bull's as guileless and impersonal.It is not unusual for our will to be defied and our wishes frustrated. Sublime landscapes do not therefore introduce us to our inadequacy; rather, to touch on the crux of their appeal, they allow us to conceive of a familiar inadequacy in a new and more helpful way. Sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves.There is a strictly religious message here. God assures Job that he has a place in his heart, even if all events do not centre around him and may at times appear to run contrary to his interest. When divine wisdom eludes human understanding, the righteous, made aware of their limitations by the spectacle of sublime nature, must continue to trust in God's plans for the universe.Sublime places gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events. It is not just nature that defies us. Human life is as overwhelming. But it is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us. If we spend time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.
#Art impressesIf we are inclined to forget how much there is in the world besides that which we anticipate, then works of art are perhaps a little to blame, for in them we find at work the same process of simplification or selection as in the imagination. Artistic accounts involve severe abbreviations of what reality will force upon us.From amidst the million things in, for example, a wheat field, a successful work will draw out the features capable of exciting a sense of beauty and interest in the spectator. It will foreground elements ordinarily lost in the mass of data, stabilise them and, once we are acquainted with them, prompt us imperceptibly to find them in the world about us—or, if we have already found them, lend us the confidence to give them weight in our lives. We will be like a person around whom a word has been mentioned on many occasions, but who only begins to hear it once he or she has learnt its meaning.Later, explaining to his brother why he had moved from Paris to Aries, van Gogh offered two reasons: because he wanted to ‘paint the South' and because he wanted, through his work, to help other people to ‘see' it. However unsure he might be of his own powers to achieve that, he never wavered in his faith that the project was theoretically possible—that is, that artists could paint a portion of the world and in consequence open the eyes of others to it.It was for van Gogh the mark of every great painter to enable viewers to see certain aspects of the world more clearly. If Velazquez was his guide to grey and to the coarse faces of large cooks, then Monet was his guide to sunsets, Rembrandt to morning light and Vermeer to adolescent girls (‘A perfect Vermeer,' he exclaimed to Theo after he spotted one example near the arena). The sky over the Rhone after a heavy rain shower reminded him of Hokusai, the wheat of Millet and the young women in Saintes-Maries de la Mer of Cimabue and Giotto.Bad art might thus be defined as a series of bad choices about what to show and what to leave out.If drawing had value even when practised by those with no talent, it was, Ruskin believed, because it could teach us to see—that is, to notice rather than merely look. In the process of re-creating with our own hands what lies before our eyes, we seem naturally to evolve from observing beauty in a loose way to possessing a deep understanding of its constituent parts and hence more secure memories of it.Drawing allows us, in Ruskin's account, ‘to stay the cloud in its fading, the leaf in its trembling, and the shadows in their changing'.
#Travel at home‘The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room'—Pascal, Pensées, 136.‘Millions of people who, until now, have never dared to travel, others who have not been able to travel and still more who have not even thought of travelling will be able to follow my example,' explained Xavier as he prepared for his journey ‘The most indolent beings will no longer have any reason to hesitate before setting off to find pleasures that will cost them neither money nor effort.' He particularly recommended room travel to the poor and to those afraid of storms, robbers and high cliffs.The story begins well: de Maistre locks his door and changes into his pink-and-blue pyjamas. With no need of luggage, he travels to the sofa, the largest piece of furniture in the room. His journey having shaken him from his usual lethargy, he looks at it through fresh eyes and rediscovers some of its qualities. He admires the elegance of its feet and remembers the pleasant hours he has spent cradled in its cushions, dreaming of love and advancement in his career. From his sofa, de Maistre spies his bed. Once again, from a traveller's vantage point, he learns to appreciate this complex piece of furniture. He feels grateful for the nights he has spent in it and takes pride in the fact that his sheets almost match his pyjamas. ‘I advise any man who can do so to get himself pink and white bedlinen,' he writes, for these are colours to induce calm and pleasant reveries in the fragile sleeper.De Maistre tried to shake us from our passivity. In his second volume of room travel, Nocturnal Expedition around My Bedroom, he went to his window and looked up at the night sky. Its beauty made him feel frustrated that such ordinary scenes were not more generally appreciated: ‘How few people are right now taking delight in this sublime spectacle that the sky lays on uselessly for dozing humanity! What would it cost those who are out for a walk or crowding out of the theatre to look up for a moment and admire the brilliant constellations that gleam above their heads?' The reason people were not looking was that they had never done so before. They had fallen into the habit of considering their universe to be boring—and their universe had duly fallen into line with their expectations.
#How it feels on journeyBut as the moment to board his train approached, along with the chance to turn his dreams of London into reality, des Esseintes was abruptly overcome with lassitude. He thought how wearing it would be actually to make the journey—how he would have to run to the station, fight for a porter, board the train, endure an unfamiliar bed, stand in lines, feel cold and move his fragile frame around the sights that Baedeker had so tersely describedThe clouds usher in tranquillity. Below us are enemies and colleagues, the sites of our terrors and our griefs, all of them now infinitesimal, mere scratches on the earth. We may know this old lesson in perspective well enough, but rarely does it seem as true as when we are pressed against the cold plane window, our craft a teacher of profound philosophy and a faithful disciple of the Baudelairean command: Carriage, take me with you! Ship, steal me away from here! Take me far, far away. Here the mud is made of our tears!It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived. The decline was gradual, like that of a person into old age, inconspicuous from day to day until the season became an established, relentless reality. First came a dip in evening temperatures, then days of continuous rain, confused gusts of Atlantic wind, dampness, the fall of leaves and the changing of the clocks—though there were still occasional moments of reprieve, mornings when one could leave the house without a coat and the sky was cloudless and bright. But they were like false signs of recovery in a patient upon whom death has already passed its sentence.